Between empathy and anger: healthcare workers’ perspectives on patient disengagement from antiretroviral treatment in Khayelitsha, South Africa - a qualitative study
Nhemachena T., Späth C., Arendse KD., Lebelo K., Zokufa N., Cassidy T., Whitehouse K., Keene CM., Swartz A.
Background & objectives: The benefits of long-term adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART) are countered by interruptions in care or disengagement from care. Healthcare workers (HCWs) play an important role in patient engagement and negative or authoritarian attitudes can drive patients to disengage. However, little is known about HCWs’ perspectives on disengagement. We explored HCWs’ perspectives on ART disengagement in Khayelitsha, a peri-urban area in South Africa with a high HIV burden. Method: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 30 HCWs in a primary care HIV clinic to explore their perspectives of patients who disengage from ART. HCWs interviewed included clinical (doctors and nurses) and support staff (counsellors, social workers, data clerks, security guards, and occupational therapists). The interview guide asked HCWs about their experience working with patients who interrupt treatment and return to care. Transcripts were audio-recorded, transcribed, and analysed using an inductive thematic analysis approach. Results: Most participants were knowledgeable about the complexities of disengagement and barriers to sustaining engagement with ART, raising their concerns that disengagement poses a significant public health problem. Participants expressed empathy for patients who interrupted treatment, particularly when the challenges that led to their disengagement were considered reasonable by the HCWs. However, many also expressed feelings of anger and frustration towards these patients, partly because they reported an increase in workload as a result. Some staff, mainly those taking chronic medication themselves, perceived patients who disengage from ART as not taking adequate responsibility for their own health. Conclusion: Lifelong engagement with HIV care is influenced by many factors including disclosure, family support, and HCW interactions. Findings from this study show that HCWs had contradictory feelings towards disengaged patients, experiencing both empathy and anger. Understanding this could contribute to the development of more nuanced interventions to support staff and encourage true person-centred care, to improve patient outcomes.